I like to think I am quite a good communicator; it is probably a fairly essential requirement for anyone in the teaching profession. My husband also likes to think he is a good communicator and anyone who knows him will tell you he is certainly always talking. The other day, however, things went a little awry.
In the front of our house is a tree, planted in the neighbour’s garden, which was overgrowing a flower bed we had recently planted. My mum has a Spanish neighbour who had been helping her with her garden, so she duly sent him round to see if he could help. Neither of us speak Spanish, and he had very little English, but Martin went out into the garden, convinced that his knowledge of Italian would serve him well, aided by the gardener’s partner who spoke more English than Carlos did.
I watched out the window as Martin attempted to explain what we needed, waving his hands around to support the gaps in his language abilities. He asked Carlos to trim back the tree so that the light could get to the new plants, and came into the house looking pleased with what he had achieved. My Mum had told us that Carlos liked cutting back plants and shrubs – and this proved to be the under statement of the year. The trimming had been rather more thorough than either of us had envisaged, and left me creeping next door, under cover of darkness, to put a letter of apology into the neighbour’s letterbox.
We often think we have communicated really well, only to find that the listener has either not listened or completely misunderstood what we said. I believe that anyone who has ever parented a child or taught a class will know the feeling of delivering an instruction and then wondering whether they were speaking in a language other than their own. As George Bernard Shaw once said: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
In recent months, we have seen the sad side of communication breakdown as we have sadly watched our dad sink further into dementia and Alzheimer’s. In a family who are rarely quiet, here is a man who was extremely articulate; a writer of poetry, song words and sketches; a man who loved to talk about life with his family and friends and who was always quick with a witty pun. He liked nothing more than to sit around the table while mum was cooking dinner, talking with his daughters, fielding comments and questions about school work, the birds and the bees and life itself.
Now he can barely communicate and when he does, the words are confused and he is increasingly frustrated and sad. We try and communicate with him but often fail to reach him in his world. So we communicate by holding his hand and just by being with him, but many are the times we drive away from the care home, feeling sad and despondent that Dad’s life has reached this stage.
But we do have comfort in the fact that we regularly spent time communicating with him when he was well, and that he never missed an opportunity to tell us that he loved us. The time that we have with loved ones may be shorter than we think and we need to make the most of each moment. We need to know that when communication has become limited or not possible, we have no regrets because we have said those things that are important. In a world where we can be swamped with messages via social media and email and yet conversely many are socially isolated, we need to take every opportunity to connect with those around us.
When we do talk to those around us, let’s communicate on a real level, sharing our joys and sorrows, our thoughts and ideas, our hopes and dreams. In a world that is often superficial, it is good to use our words to build others up instead of pulling them down, to encourage when it is needed and to thank when thanks are due. My Dad knew the value of words and how important they are. When we arrive to see him and he can’t remember our names, he still remembers to say, “I love you.”
Written by Rosalyn Satchell, regular Liberti contributor